A bird’s eye view of my first African morning depicted a group of twelve newly introduced American teenagers standing in a circle, kicking a soccer ball back and forth in an attempt to assimilate to each other. We had just arrived to the rural village of Olokii with the intention of providing its people with assistance in building a new school. On that first morning, our trip leaders were meeting with tribesmen and our translator, working out the details of our stay. As a volunteer group with The Road Less Traveled from the United States, we were strictly instructed to not wander away and warned that some villagers did not approve of our presence. We were told not to interact with village people until our status as visitors had been established and confirmed.
Slowly warming up to each other under the orange sun, we quickly noticed distant breaks in the horizon from all around us. As they moved closer, the colors and fabrics of traditional African garb on the local people moved into focus. An invisible barrier encompassed us; the small clusters of approaching villagers unanimously lingered in the distance about 100 feet away. Men and women leaned into each other, whispering, their tones of apprehension and curiosity traveling to us through the breezeless air.
Some of our twelve grew nervous, moving back to the more comfortable confines of our campsite. Others chose to continue the ball game, ignoring the villagers’ presence and their whispers. I initially found myself perplexed by the nature of the moment. Then, realizing theirs was a natural curiosity I did not feel threatened by, I knew I could not allow myself to disrespect or ignore them. I turned my head from the still existing circle, humbly meeting the eyes of our audience, connecting through the commonality of humanity. I noticed a group of children breaking the invisible barrier their parents still maintained. They were shy. Their eyes shone with the brilliance of curiosity and a reticence of fear. The kicking game continued behind me as I broke away from the circle. I felt the eyes of the villagers follow me as I motioned to the children to join us. One child hesitantly moved forward, only to be pulled back by his nervous peers. I then moved closer to the children, bending on one knee to their level, reaching out my hand in friendship.
What followed was a universal pause. The villagers stopped whispering and the remainder of our twelve’s circle stopped kicking. All watched my outstretched hand, waiting with baited breath to see what the product of my boldness would be. The intensity of the moment froze us all in time, until one brave child stepped forward and took my hand, bridging the invisible gap that had created such tension. He walked with me to join the circle, the other children following us close behind. The once weary village adults now moved closer, their whispers giving way to smiles of approval. And so began the greatest ball game of my life.
We were later told that most of these tribes people had never seen Caucasians before. The success of that first game showed that ethnicities or skin colors should not keep us apart, however. The smiles of that morning’s game left no room for bias. Laughter needs no translation.
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